By John Gruber
Infolio — No-nonsense task management and team collaboration
Mark Gurman, writing Tuesday for Bloomberg, under the attention-grabbing headline “Apple Plans to Return More Staff to Offices in Break From Rivals”:1
Apple’s approach to returning to its offices differs greatly from that of other well-known technology companies. It underscores Apple’s longtime focus on in-person meetings and hands-on product development, and the company’s reliance on hardware as its central business.
Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google have said that most employees can work from home through 2020. Amazon.com Inc. said that office workers will be able to work from home until early October and Twitter Inc. said staff can work from home “forever” if they choose.
The narrative thrust of this story, emphasized by the “in break from rivals” clause in the headline, is that Apple is somehow pushing harder to bring employees back to its offices than Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter.
I call bullshit. This narrative conveys the opposite of what’s going on at Apple. “There is no there there,” said one Apple manager I spoke with.
From earlier in Gurman’s story:
The Cupertino, California-based technology giant plans to bring back employees in phases to its offices, including the main Apple Park campus in Silicon Valley, over a few months, according to people familiar with the plan. The first phase, which includes staff members who can’t work remotely or are facing challenges working from home, has already begun in some regions globally. It will expand to major offices across late May and early June, Apple has told staff.
A second phase, scheduled to begin in July, will return even more employees to Apple’s offices globally. In the U.S., the company has locations in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Texas, San Diego and Boulder, Colorado. The return-to-work timelines are fluid and may change, particularly given local and state stay-at-home orders, said the people, who asked not to be identified talking about internal company matters
There’s a difference between outright falsehoods and bullshit. The above can all be true — I have one specific point to dispute, which I’ll get to below — but still be bullshit in the context of the narrative gist of the story. The narrative here is that Apple’s culture is leading it to more aggressively push employees who can work from home to return to the office, sooner rather than later, whether they’re comfortable doing so or not.
I spent the day asking folks at Apple what’s going on, and this just doesn’t seem to be the case. If you closely read the reported facts in Bloomberg’s report — put aside the headline and the lede, and just read the facts and the quotes from sources — what’s being alleged is only that Apple is different from Amazon/Google/Facebook/Twitter in that more of Apple’s business is the creation of hardware, and many aspects of hardware development can’t be done remotely.
Duh. That’s not news.
Oh, and there are no quotes from any sources in Bloomberg’s report, so you don’t have to bother looking for them.
It is true that managers at Apple are engaged in planning out employees’ eventual return to office work. It would be strange if this weren’t happening. It is also true that they’re looking at three phases. But consider the first phase, in Gurman’s own words:
The first phase, which includes staff members who can’t work remotely or are facing challenges working from home […]
This first phase doesn’t just “include” those who can’t work remotely or are having trouble working from home — it entirely consists of those people. That’s what the first phase is: people who can’t do their job from home, or can’t do all of it from home, or who are otherwise having problems working from home. That’s it.
That’s surely no different at all from what is going on at Amazon/Google/Facebook/Twitter. It would be news if any company were not making arrangements for employees who need to be on site to do their jobs.
As for a second phase being “scheduled” to begin in July, all of the sources I spoke with say otherwise. There is no schedule. July would be a theoretically possible but highly optimistic start, yes, but the schedule is being set by the virus, not by Apple. “There is no real timeline associated with phases 2 or 3 yet,” one source told me. And, from what I’ve been told, managers are under no pressure whatsoever to get members of their teams into phases 1 or 2.
If anything, the opposite — managers are encouraging those who can continue working from home to do so, for their safety and peace of mind, and to keep the entire campus as empty as possible for those who need to be there. All the way up the chain, leadership at Apple is “totally fine with us not returning anytime soon”, said a source.
There are jobs at Apple for which time at the office is essential. Primarily such jobs are about hardware products. Apple does differ from other U.S. tech Goliaths in the fact that so much of its business is about hardware. Hardware is a hobby for Facebook and Google, and to some degree Amazon. Twitter doesn’t do hardware at all. Hardware is where Apple makes the overwhelming share of its revenue. There are physical tools required to make physical products. Many of those tools either can’t be used from home, period, or can’t safely be used from home.
It is also true that, compared to other companies, Apple has a stronger culture of face-to-face collaboration and an institutional resistance to remote work, even for software. Bloomberg’s report clearly implies that this culture is leading Apple to move aggressively to get employees back in the office. But everything I am hearing suggests otherwise. Whether this will result in work-from-home policy changes post-COVID, no one knows, but while COVID remains a threat, Apple is embracing work-from-home for every employee possible.
There are no plans for Apple Park to return to anything but “a goddamn ghost town” — one source’s words — until the COVID-19 outbreak is under control, perhaps not until there is a vaccine or therapeutic treatments with proven efficacy. Apple Park is so sparse right now that the employees who are on campus often see no other humans while there.
One last point. Gurman’s report states:
This week, senior Apple managers are beginning to inform employees if they are in the first phase or a later part of the process.
This is exactly the reverse of how this process is taking place. Managers at Apple aren’t making these decisions and then “informing” employees. Tag, you’re going back to the office. It has been emphasized that managers have conversations with everyone on their teams, to hear from the employees, listen to what they need, how they feel, and what the circumstances are in their lives. And then to make decisions together, in collaboration.
“Apple Is Approaching Return to Office Work Cautiously and Humanely, Just Like Other Companies in Tech, Albeit With the Added but Obvious Burden of Having More Employees Who Work on Hardware” isn’t much of a headline, though.
Bloomberg, of course, is the publication that published “The Big Hack” in October 2018 — a sensational story alleging that data centers of Apple, Amazon, and dozens of other companies were compromised by China’s intelligence services. The story presented no confirmable evidence at all, was vehemently denied by all companies involved, has not been confirmed by a single other publication (despite much effort to do so), and has been largely discredited by one of Bloomberg’s own sources. By all appearances “The Big Hack” was complete bullshit. Yet Bloomberg has issued no correction or retraction, and seemingly hopes we’ll all just forget about it. I say we do not just forget about it. Bloomberg’s institutional credibility is severely damaged, and everything they publish should be treated with skepticism until they retract the story or provide evidence that it was true. ↩︎